John A. Macdonald on Senate Elections

John A. Macdonald feared democracy. That’s Neal Reynolds’ contention, as I said yesterday. He’s wrong. Macdonald prescribed liberal democracy. That’s not Reynold’s only mistake.

Oh. The inventiveness of people who make up Canadian history!

Reynolds assumes that Macdonald supported an appointed Senate: “As for our Senate (from the Latin senex – “old man”), Macdonald’s model empowered the Crown to maintain an upper house of privileged men of property for life.”

Well, it’s easy to make such a mistake. There’s Macdonald, back in the past, in the 1860s; he must have had old-fashioned ideas, wouldn’t you think? In fact, Macdonald argued strenuously for an elective Senate. By the time the debates on Confederation are held in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada early in 1865, he has been outvoted. At the Quebec Conference the previous fall the Fathers of Confederation had decided that the general government of the federation would have an appointed upper house. As a supporter of the Quebec Resolutions Macdonald was then required to endorse appointment. In the Assembly debates he alludes to his former preference for election. He could hardly have avoided the topic. Everyone present would have known his true views.

There’s another matter. At the time of the debates on Confederation, the Province of Canada was in the process of abandoning the process of appointment to the provincial Legislative Council. Appointed members continued to sit; as seats became vacant, new members were elected. And then – surprise, Upper Canada (Ontario) came into Confederation without an upper chamber.

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4 Responses to “John A. Macdonald on Senate Elections”


  1. 1 James Bowden July 10, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Randall White in The Voice of Region: The Long Journey To Senate Reform in Canada recounts that George-Etienne Cartier supported an appointed upper house quite strongly, calling it “resistance of the democratic element.” However, White also contends that at the Charlottetown Conference, only Oliver Mowat and David Mills supported an elected upper house.

    In general, most historians and political scientists overlook that the Legislative Council of Canada was phasing out its appointed members and becoming an elected chamber; in that sense, Confederation took a step backward, and Australia claims credit of creating the first elected upper house in the English-speaking world.

  2. 2 Stephen MacLean July 15, 2011 at 7:29 am

    As a counter argument to Professor Ajzenstat’s contention that Macdonald supported an elected Senate, may I suggest otherwise, with references. See Reform of the Senate of Canada: A Progressive Conservative Perspective, §2.3.1.

    As for abolition of the Legislative Councils in the provinces, see my interpretation at footnote 67 (page 19).

    Readers may be further interested in my essay for the Institute of Economic Affairs with respect to public choice theory and reform of the House of Lords.

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